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Research on Shakespeare

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München, 07/04/2014

How do Shakespeare’s plays strike us today? The dramatist was born all of 450 years ago, yet his plays – in ever new interpretations – remain vital. Literary scholars Tobias Döring and Andreas Höfele try to explain why.

Foto: Evie Fylaktou/epa ANA

London in the 16th century, Shakespeare’s time: In a theatre much like Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, “the wooden O”, on the south bank of the Thames, the spectators are cheering on the dogs at a bear-baiting. Are the roots of modern drama to be found here, in the voyeur’s delight in violence and cruelty?

Höfele: That is certainly one of the foundations of modern drama. Early modern drama must have been just as exciting as the nearby spectacle of bear-baiting, but the latter is not its antecedent in an archaeological sense, even though there are obvious structural similarities between the bear-pits and the theatres of the time, and theaters hosted bear-baiting sessions on days when no plays were scheduled.

Nevertheless, many of Shakespeare’s dramas, Titus Andronicus for example, depict cruelty with a degree of bloodthirstiness comparable, perhaps, only with that found in Kleist. Titus butchers Tamora’s two sons and serves them up to her in a pie. Is the nucleus of theatre not in significant measure made up of representations of cruelty and violence?

Döring: But that’s not an invention of Shakespeare’s. What you are really getting at is that the sheer spectacle of the plays is more than modern bourgeois audiences want to experience in the course of an evening out.

Höfele: That is certainly true of Shakespeare – as it is to this day of the cinema. Sex and violence are obviously what interest audiences most. But theatre is not only a matter of the vicarious enjoyment of violence, but also of the resources it mobilizes in opposition to the violence. The most excruciating scene in Shakespeare is the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear. In full view of the audience, an old man, bound to a chair, has his eyeballs pried out of their sockets by Cornwall, who uses the frightful phrase: “Out, vile jelly!” And in this situation, the victim compares his plight to that of a bear being harried by the dogs. Here is a direct link with the bear-baiting next door. But in this very scene we have the countervailing figure of Cornwall’s servant, who stabs his lord and pays for it with his life. So in this scene we have the complicity with the cruelty and the voyeurism of the spectators, but also the refusal to acquiesce to it. The moment when the lowest depth of inhumanity is reached is also the moment that provokes a reaction in favour of the victim.

Döring: The focus on Shakespeare’s canonical status may be misleading. His rival and precursor Christopher Marlowe is no less shocking. We may find a theatrical practice that confronts us with these physical violations repulsive, but violence is a basic element of the theatre, and it has a dramatic function. Moreover, words can be equally shocking. Richard III’s atrocities are not committed in the open; his violence is all verbal – but by no means innocuous.

But what concept of humanity lies behind all this? Is it something we can relate to today, or is it not an altogether more pessimistic notion?

Höfele: Yes and no. Much of Shakespeare is yes and no. The interesting point is that Shakespeare doesn’t give an unambiguous answer to the question.

Döring: And that is characteristic for Shakespeare as a dramatist.

Höfele: He poses questions and he puts in question. That is what makes him as interesting today as he ever was. Like probably all great artists, Shakespeare soaked up the currents of thought and intellectual impulses of his time. Take that scene in Lear again. Does it give us a pessimistic image of humanity, or does it not present an extraordinarily optimistic one? This servant, who says no to injustice, who steps in, takes action, is the very essence of the humane. And we need only look back some 50 years, to shortly after the war to find King Lear being perceived and staged as the apotheosis of Christian humanism. Nowadays, we regard such a notion as ridiculous. On the other hand, if a play like The Tempest, which appears to us to reflect colonial or rather post-colonial situations and themes. But this view would have seemed strange to post-war theatre-goers. Shakespeare does not present us with a cohesive picture of the world; instead, he confronts us with a whole series of questions, all of which are still relevant to us.

Döring: Statements about Shakespeare’s concept of man are always assertions about the individuals who make them. Shakespeare is the touchstone for whatever happens to be the scientifically or philosophically based conception of humans and human life that is currently en vogue. The best example of this is psychoanalysis. I don’t think that Freud contributed very much to a new interpretation of Shakespeare. But Shakespeare certainly did a great deal to establish Freud as a modern cultural hero. Thanks to Hamlet we have a clearer picture of Freud’s role in the construction of the 20th century’s concept of the world. The current of influence flowed the other way round.

Interview: Maximilian Burkhart

The complete article is available here. The original, German-language article appeared in ”Einsichten – das Forschungsmagazin No. 1, 2014“, LMU‘s German-language research magazine.